All kinds of societies through history have had some version or the other of the watchman on the hill, someone to tell the rest of us about the dangers that could be coming our way. And, says Mitchell Stephens, it may be that "the most valuable news we can receive is of a clear and present danger."
In his book, A History of News, this New York University communications professor mentions such examples as the 18th century shout that the British were coming and the 20th century news that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. He writes of hurricane, earthquake and even rainstorm warnings, and yes, the information can prompt appropriate, even lifesaving responses.
But, at the same time, we all know, the supposed news can be baseless, sensationalist screeches or even the venting of a political bias that maybe truly does have some supposedly high purpose in mind even if none is served and many are hurt. And that observation brings me to the current controversy over The Journal News that distributes papers in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties in New York.
It published the names and addresses of 33,614 area residents who have handgun permits, meaning that some gun haters may now figure their next-door neighbor needs cursing as well. Those addresses, of course, provide special assistance to criminals in search of ways to latch on to some tools of their trade, and the newspaper went further than that.
Possibly encouraging the burglary-inspired, the paper also produced online maps that can even more readily guide them to where they might strike.
The incident comes amidst a national debate on gun control following the terrible tragedy of slain schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., and the reporter who wrote the story is not backing down. "The people have as much of a right to know who owns guns in their communities as gun owners have to own weapons," he is quoted as saying by The New York Times.
It was not a wise comment. The issue is not about rights. The issue is about endangering people for no reason whatsoever. The paper could easily have told the story of the vast extent of gun ownership without specifying actual owners, although it should be quickly observed that this error absolutely does not justify threats to the paper, the online publishing of reporter names and addresses and even worse sorts of retaliation that have been reported. These kinds of actions are frightening, sickening and deplorable and the perpetrators are disgusting.
Far less blameworthy are those readers who drop their subscriptions or those advertisers who now seek other venues, and I'd point out that this controversy comes during what I have started thinking of as The Great Transition. Ours is a time when newspapers are shrinking and online substitutes are very much a hit-or-miss proposition. The need is not just for fresh business models, but an allegiance to time-proven standards that generally override shortcomings.
Taken as a whole, mainstream media remain a blessing, as they help us dodge and otherwise cope with evils and lesser perplexities in our midst, to take advantage of opportunities and to give us an amazingly well-rounded view of society.
There have always been issues of capturing attention with such devices as partisanship and gossip about personal scandals. America's first newspaper of more than one page -- Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick -- had a great time in 1690 telling readers how the king of France had had an affair with his daughter-in-law.
At the same time, there has been impressive growth in seriousness and, right now, at this crucial juncture, media should be especially careful about political bias that distorts news and is one factor among a number in leading to practices that alienate vast numbers of news consumers even as they may attract some.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.)